What should an art festival look like?

03/03/19 GDLP + ZM

Last week we wrote a text called ‘do galleries ever ask us what we want to see?’ n it looked into the very few examples of literal communication between curators and the visitors they are supposed to be serving w that public funding. We wrote it on behalf of Croydon Arts Store who are currently spending time thinking about the future of art in their area, which faces redevelopment and Westfieldisation. they will b losing their space soon so they’re wondering what they should become >> which brings us 2 the topic of today’s text. If Croydon Arts Store (whose partners are Turf Projects, Kingston School of Art, Art Halo and the local council) become some kind of annual or biennial festival, what might that look like? yep its a nice place 2 be, at the v beginning thinking ahead n dreaming up something new but there is so much at stake here; how do u get it right? it is worth acknowledging the festivals already in place across the UK/world but we’re not going to spend time just listing those bc tbh we take issue with practically all of them. nothing feels moral or honest, sincere. The big festivals parachute in trendy artists and don’t support the local art scene, fail when it comes to public engagement, spend more time and money on professionally networking with other institutions / collectors / critics who will write nice things / monied people, and seem to care only about maintaining their brand rather than putting out any meaningful or relevant content. they’re businesses more than anything. fight me. And then smaller festivals, who claim to platform exciting ! upcoming ! creatives, are in a way scarier. Their money only extends as far as the directors and core team, and then they haphazardly exhibit the work of as many entry-level artists as possible without giving them a penny. they have eyes bigger than their budget, promise so much n then do not deliver. Also, festivals have their inevitable Fringes, which start off in reaction to the main organisation but are also often subsumed by them ? , and lack the bare amount of organisation or focus required to do something well. Acknowledge all that but let’s quickly move on and b cute for the rest of the text as we sketch out ideas CAS could incorporate. am basically writing up festivals i wish existed in liverpool, london ~ wherever i ever am.

  1. my obvious first answer, but sweet n nice ! : a festival for people who are from or based in your area. Exhibitors chosen from a very porous open call that takes in online submissions, anything thru the post, messages online. But it’s also important for submissions to come from face to face conversations too - make sure you take time to sit in key sites in ur locality like gallery or theatre foyers, libraries, town hall, community centres, just loads of foyers tbh where u can chat casually with a pen 2 keep notes with people who might want to bring a painting along to show you what they are makin. Then, accept a REALISTIC amount of work selected by a diverse/representative panel, and exhibit them at a REALISTIC number of spaces (ideally as few as possible - it’s hard enuf as it is spinning plates but if you keep the number low and something drops, it’s within arm’s reach). having a small amount of venues makes mapping and marketing a festival much easier but is also a case for accessibility, bc you shouldn’t be expecting your visitors to go on legit pilgrimages to see some bitty art around a city. keep it all as tight as possible i m o. Do the festival in August when kids are off school and parents are looking for something to do. And finally, pay each artist a solid fee to show WORK ALREADY MADE as opposed to BRAND NEW COMMISSIONS because those are 2 entirely separate processes. while both support artists, the former is easier to manage, means less risk-taking and less of an ask on their part. this is not a way to get around giving artists more money - you can have a commissioning stream (see no.3) alongside the main festival, but I just think ppl have plenty of art they’ve already made that deserves to see the light of day and if you’re starting out, start with this i guess. If you have the budget for it, organise decent workshop opportunities such as How To Write A Funding Application, or do a poll and see what else people want to learn - How To Photograph Your Art is always popular, or How To Market Your Art too. i don’t know if this text is very boring because it’s so technical, but i also feel like we literally need to cover the basics because so many festivals are very fucking exploitative. If your objectives are transparent and quite simple from the beginning, and you connect with artists who are complicit in those aims, it’s much easier to deliver on a good project instead of something overly ambitious that becomes a bad art fyre fest that upsets, disappoints and really puts people off working in the arts going fwd.

  2. lets be more fun now. what if you took number 1’s aim but it was 4 x SEASONAL SHOWS like you had winter spring summer and autumn editions. what if each was put together from the same open call system but filtered into mediums, like the 2019 Summer Exhibition was in fact a literature festival; Autumn 2020 brought films; then a full on painting show, animation, poetry, performance, ceramics, virtual reality, illustration, fashion design and so on, cycling thru. this sounds a tiny bit cheesy but the changeability of the project’s aim would keep it fresh ; the festival could deliver a specificity (that feels needed in this climate of neoliberalism with encroaching jack-of-all-trades-isation), embrace expertise/interest/focus, and foster a sense of variety n excitement for the audience. Much better for us all to be kept on our toes, prevents the feeling of ‘this is the same as last year’, or worse::: ‘this is not as good as the ones last year’ bc it has a SEASONAL MENU UwU. ppl that put on the same thing every year amaze me a little bit, like it’s your fourth album but the sound is exactly the same? ok Adele.

  3. Some festivals aren’t even physical, they are commissioning bodies that partner with different galleries or organisations who show the finished outcomes by artists/performers/whatever. CAS could be the core commissioner who sits in an office n dishes out the money for exhibitors at different sites. This is how Unlimited works isn’t it, partnering with Shape and ArtsAdmin to support disabled artists and companies. Imagine! I think Unlimited works well, esp as an example here, bc the way their commission works is as a v handy n needed cash injection into an artistic community that’s not rly given the space to breathe out by the mainstream art world (who r more invested in sameness bc it doesn’t involve legwork ofc). I think sometimes commissioning needs a specificity, for purpose & guide-rope; that can be a specificity in identity, locality, subject matter (yawn) or something completely more unstable than all of the above. But imagine if commissions were decided by something other than sociability. Lean in to the new frontier, plis.

  4. Some festivals exist on like, one night a year (Art Night in London, Light Night in Liverpool) where exhibitions and events are on til late but i just think this is too high pressure and anyway what if it RAINS. I think taking up the role of the First Thursdays or First Fridays organisers, or producing an art map for ur locality, can go a big way 2 supporting art in ur area on a more frequent + tangible basis. It also creates a sense of buzz n excitement, charging the local scene w motivation and morale. And tbh I do think (in London, maybe this’d be too wide a net, but) I would like a backbone or some kind of central organisation for all the good stuff. Like, imagine what that kinda centrally located organisation could do for an area. Things would just be smoother & easier to navigate both as a viewer and as someone trying to host/do something. Ofc all of that is dependent on the right people being in place - this central org would only rly work if there was a complete open door, non-curatorial policy. The last thing we need ANYWHERE is another opportunity to gate-keep some random new bridge to doing things. But think of the possibilities! First Fridays in Digbeth (Birmingham) are well-known n well attended bc people know there’ll be something on; galleries programme w First Fridays in mind & it is a charged atmosphere with momentum. I have a friend who’s from Brum, but based in London, and she times her visits home to coincide with First Fridays. HOW GOOD IS THAT!? If only we could all create that forward drive! (Disclaimer: my friend from Brum says: ‘First Fridays are so shit, it’s no joke!’ but she still KEEPS GOING BACK FOR MORE! I think this would be less about quality assurance, and more about generating momentum & mobilising the local scene, surely quality will come after? We can only hope…)

  5. I don’t know about suggesting this next one but i’m gonna include it anyway because it interests me: someone emailed us recently about the Chisenhale’s 1988 exhibition Identity that showed * all * 60 works submitted because ‘’Open' exhibitions are generally ‘selected’ by ‘experts’. Identity is not. All works submitted are shown, in order to increase recognition of women’s potential and achievement in the arts, regardless of age, class, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.’ I am not sure how to reconcile an open exhibition and paying people bc what do you do if 300 people turn up ? but i love kicking down the door and just letting people in. and maybe maybe if you are transparent about wanting to do an open exhibition without artist fees and people comply, then in return you can install everything professionally, market it and let people sell work without taking commission. maybe maybe still feels iffy to me. But it’s a model worth considering, because all of these bullet points are so malleable and plastic. We are j throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. If this lights a fire under ur ass for a differently moulded model, then it was all worth it. This suggestion is a softer one than the others; soup in ur hands, not in the bowl ☺️

  6. So every once in a while, the ICA does this institutional juice cleanse called In Formation. It’s had 3 iterations so far, and we were commissioned by their Education Dept to write about the third one (which you can read here, here, here, and here). The programme is entirely public programme: all events / performance / live and it’s like a lil incubator, seeing what churns out the sides. They often use it as a first contact, to forge bonds with creatives that they go on to involve in their main exhibitions programme, although it’s not strictly generative in that linear way, so it ends up acting as a rly good sphincter (for institution & artist both). But also, for the institution, it’s space to think aloud; throw questions out to other people & have them think about these hot, burning topics that are pressing into ur mind; time to dare 2 dream and be speculative about utopian models for fairer practice that you can then take away and attempt to implement. Of course, there’s always the danger (the same danger as all institutional critique) that the institution could j take the speculative suggestion and j absorb it, repackage it in a bland, beige coating, and use it as yet more institutional aggression. And idk how to reconcile or counter balance that.. I guess we all j have to clench and hope for the best. But basically, j imagine this but as a yearly occurrence. A biennial that feeds into a wider program for an institution, all of it public/live; I think that would be embracing an instability! And that instability could be productive & exciting if angled the right way, i think i hope. Like imagine a lil festival hanger on/parasite, feeding back to the institution, and slowly changing it for the better, formulating better ways to operate, paying people to think aloud along the way.

  7. A graduate show: so New Contemporaries is obviously the first example that jumps to mind when someone says graduate show. Do away with that, abeg. The next thing that springs to mind are those lil exploitative ~OpEn CaLL~ flyers for a graduate arts prize that circulate through university inboxes every degree show season. U kno dem ones, the ones that are £50 to enter, so your painting can hang on the wall of some solicitor’s office on Gray’s Inn Road and that’s the prize (?? why!?). Right, neither of them, neither super slick corporate art world deep-end, nor exploitative neoliberal scummy model. Imagine a grad show with SPECIFICITY and PURPOSE. The closest I’ve seen was last year’s BBZ x SYFU Alt Graduate Show: BBZ.BLK.BK. The curatorial remit was based on identity: ‘BBZ and sorryyoufeeluncomfortable believe that the commitment and passion of artists who are black and queer deserves to be celebrated. Our intention is to provide a space for artists to be their fullest selves in the presentation of their work, and for audiences to view their work in a space that does not pathologize or Other their identities.’ Which is obviously something London (*ahem* eVERYWHERE) needs desperately and if they don’t do one again in 2019 I will cry a thousand tears and write a strongly worded email to whomever it may concern. Honestly, why aren’t the Arts Council funding this!?!? But this model could be a tall glass of water for every parched local city-scene that has a lively art school, but no support for the students coming out of it. Imagine, like a moving-on fund attached to a grad show in somewhere like Reading (where the art school is boss, but what do students do once they’ve graduated? Where do they go?). Maybe this is less formally an annual festival, more just a necessary n needed yearly occurrence that should j happen anyway, but the idea of partnering with an art school to provide studios & funding for a group of students would be powerful in charging up a local scene and motivating people to stick around (n not just fuck off to London bc ~that’s where stuff happens~ bc I can assure u it kinda doesn’t). Also, imagine if this grad show was also support given to students on the basis of identity! Imagine what that could do to towns n cities outside of London, where all too often it feels like artists of colour are skimmed over, both by the local scene and by the nationwide mobilisation of artists of colour which seems to only rly focus on empowering artists of colour based in London. I am convinced this is a good idea, if slightly squashy n liquid as it stands. I hope this one is allowed to marinate in ur minds also.

  8. Finally, and to follow on from 7: I was in a talk about emerging artists once and someone behind me in the audience put their hand up and asked the panel why couldn’t supporting emerging artists mean ones who weren’t young. Why couldn’t there be a bloomberg old contemporaries? I have not stopped thinking about it because fuckin yes. Maybe also do it without a sponsor as iconically capitalist as bloomberg. Or allow people in who don’t have a degree?? Tbh age is something you could incorporate in our v first example, of just putting on some good shows by local artists.

But what do the people in ur area even want? ask first - that was the whole point of our text last week on local advisory boards, because there might be a way forward you didn’t even consider. This has been sort of a speculative fiction essay listicle. Festivals, Biennials, these big public moments™ as they stand are kinda broken models t b q h w u. Just see Gab’s review of Liverpool Biennial 2018. But it’s good to ask how do we build festivals that are better than that? Hopefully it’s not as faithless n broken as it seems, and we can jiggle things back in our favour w the simple act of implementing better & more careful/kind working practices into our endeavours. throughout all these suggestions its clear that we must practice creativity w the deepest empathy + do so without falling pray 2 a ‘bigger is better’ mentality. Ok go forth n do a festival. And pls send us an invite in the post so we can come evaluate. Gud luk.

if u don't want to read but u wanna listen instead, pls find the recording of this above ^

{ the only reason The White Pube can still exist is because some of our readers choose to support us each month via Patreon. We sometimes do talks and other jobs but Patreon is how we get paid for the actual writing here - the reviews n art thoughts and so on. And it's so important to us 2 that we can stay independent critics without ties to big funders or institutions, public or private. Thank you for being our old timey patrons - we'll do our best to produce quality output; write stuff that is thoughtful and sincere. }

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